The former Premier League goalkeeper Brad Friedel once said that to be able to work well in the box, you have to be able to think outside the box.
Now scientific data supports the idea that goalies’ brains really do perceive the world differently – their brains appear able to merge signals from the different senses more quickly, possibly underpinning their unique abilities on the football pitch.
Goalkeeping is the most specialised position in football, with the primary objective of stopping the opposition from scoring. But while previous studies have highlighted differences in physiological and performance profiles between goalkeepers and other players, far less was known about whether they have different perceptual or cognitive abilities.
“Unlike other football players, goalkeepers are required to make thousands of very fast decisions based on limited or incomplete sensory information,” said Michael Quinn, a former goalkeeper in the Irish Premiership, who is now studying for a master’s degree in behavioural neuroscience at University College Dublin.
Suspecting that this ability might hinge on an enhanced capacity to combine information from different senses, Quinn and researchers at Dublin City University and University College Dublin recruited 60 professional goalkeepers, outfield players and age-matched non-players to do a series of tests, looking for differences in their ability to distinguish sounds and flashes as separate from one another. Doing so enabled them to estimate volunteers’ temporal binding windows – the timeframe in which different sensory signals are fused together in the brain.
The study, published in Current Biology, found that goalkeepers had a narrower temporal binding window relative to outfielders and non-soccer players.
“It’s like a speedier estimation of the different signals that they’re receiving,” said Dr David McGovern, a psychologist at Dublin City University, who led the study.
Goalkeepers also showed a greater tendency to separate out these sensory signals, which may stem from a need to make quick decisions based on visual and auditory information coming in at different times. McGovern said: “Being a goalkeeper is very much a multisensory pursuit. It doesn’t just require visual information, but auditory information – and in some cases, they can’t see the ball at all, and they just have to use the thud of the ball to make their best guess as to where it could end up.
“What we what we think is happening is that, because of this need to treat sensory information in different ways, they rarely integrate it. Instead, they’re basically going with the sense that gives them the information quickest.
“While many football players and fans worldwide will be familiar with the idea that goalkeepers are just ‘different’ from the rest of us, this study may actually be the first time that we have proven scientific evidence to back up this claim.”
It is not yet clear whether these differences stem from the rigorous training regimens of professional goalkeepers, or a natural ability that attracts young players to be goalies. “Further research that tracks the developmental trajectory of aspiring goalkeepers will be required to tease between these possibilities,” said McGovern.
While the current study only examined male players, the team is applying for funding to study female players and hopes to investigate whether players in other highly specialised positions, such as strikers and centre-backs, also show perceptual differences.
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